Having Cancer Doesn't Make Pity A Substitute For Genuine Caring

Pity. Ugh, I know right? Even just hearing the word makes you squirm. It’s awful, and no one wants to be pitied, or be pitiable, but when you read it, did you picture something in your head? A “pitiable creature” perhaps, a hunched over person on the street who is looking for a lost puppy maybe? Admit it, you did think of something that you’d never want to be, it’s human nature. When you have cancer, even though pity is the last thing you want anyone to feel for you, it’s all you get in spades. Frankly, I’d rather have people think I was a thief, or a liar, or ugly, or a Jets fan, than have them pity me. Why is it so reviled?

Humans pride themselves on independence

First and foremost, being pitied means that others have to take care of you, and there is nothing a cancer patient despises more than feeling like a burden to others. We hate it so much that some have suggested it’s one of the main reasons terminal cancer patients end their treatments early – to avoid putting an undue burden on their family and friends.1 Yes, I know that normal people don’t particularly like it either, but feeling like a burden to others when you have cancer means that your illness is so bad that you are unable to cope, or at least, that’s what our brains tell us.

Humans in general pride ourselves on being as self-sufficient as possible and when you get ill, for most of us, asking for help is about as easy as getting help at the DMV. At 4:45pm. On a Friday. It’s just not going to happen unless the sky opens up and a voice from upon high tells us to ask for help. Or you just can’t get your sock on after seventeen tries. One or the other. Asking for help and pity, in our minds, go hand in hand, so we don’t do it.

Being pitied feels less than

Second, being pitied means you are less than, not as good as, not worthy, and it’s a constant reminder that you have been stricken with one of the most horrible things a person can endure. You may be saying right now, “I don’t think that!” OK, ask yourself this then, when you see someone with cancer, or especially, someone wearing a mask (before the pandemic) do you say, “I wonder where they got those shoes?” or “I feel sorry for that person.” If it’s 99.9% of you, it’s the latter, and if you’re the one person reading this who chose the former, then I’d really like to spend a day in your shoe closet.

The point is, when you “feel bad” for someone, you are pitying them and making the assumption that they are less than you, a normal, contributing, self-sustaining individual. Now ask yourself, how would any person respond to being reminded that they are less than you, not as good as you? Not well, thus why pity is so reviled.

Don’t fall into the traps

So what can you do to avoid pitying someone with cancer? Well, don’t fall into what I call the “Pity Trap.” As I mentioned earlier, people with cancer often wear masks, and one of the small benefits of the pandemic has been to normalize the wearing of masks. Think back to before all of this, though, and conjure up the emotions you felt when seeing someone wearing one – it was like the modern-day scarlet letter. “We better stay away from them,” you inevitably said, and felt sorry for them. Well, instead of feeling sorry for someone or feeling bad, you can instead say something like, “I wonder what it’s like to fight their fight every day.”

I mean, we all have our battles that we fight every day, and cancer is no different – it’s just our battles are a little more evident than most. In addition, there’s nothing wrong with being curious about what it’s like to fight the big “C” on a daily basis – in fact, most of us would welcome legitimate questions about our illness and welcome a chance to educate. Most times the only comments we get from strangers are, “OMG do you have cancer?” “what’s wrong with you?” and “stop being so charming and attractive.” Well, maybe not so much that last one, but you get the idea.

Another pity trap is to see someone who obviously has cancer and assume they are terminal. I cannot tell you how many times I told someone I had lymphoma and the expression on their face immediately changed. It was so totally evident that they were pitying me because they thought I was dying, that it started to make me laugh. I even began to start conversations by saying, “it’s not terminal,” just to put their dumb faces at ease! Don’t assume someone’s cancer is terminal and pity them for dying, especially when they are still alive in front of you!

Do your best to avoid pitying others

Pity, ugh, I still hate hearing that word. The reason it’s even on my mind is because I was speaking with someone for a month or so and suddenly, out of nowhere, they said I should be proud of them for “not pitying me.” I don’t make any secret of the fact I have lymphoma, and why would I? Up until that point, it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was pitiable, so it really threw me. In no way, shape or form, do I think I’m less than anyone else or dislike who I am.

In fact, as my friends will tell you – no one loves me more than me. I mean, you should be able to tell that by reading my writing, but just in case you can’t - I’m pretty great, just FYI. Hearing that someone was even thinking about me and pity in the same sentence was appalling.

So now that you know how and why being pitied makes people with chronic illness feel bad, try to do your best to avoid it. Talk soon.

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